300 gather to hear schools merger info

HILLSBOROUGH — Some 300 people crowded a forum Thursday night to hear information about a possible merger of the Orange County and Chapel Hill-Carrboro schools.

The event, sponsored by a local parents’ group and held at Cedar Ridge High School, featured a UNC professor, a member of a 1985 committee that studied the topic, and Orange County Commissioner Moses Carey, who initiated local merger discussion this January.

Merger is the only way to ensure equal opportunities for all students in the county, Carey told the crowd.

“Merger is … the best means of correcting the injustice,” Carey said. “To me, the fundamental issue in this case is the issue of civil and social justice.”

Carey has pointed to the funding disparity between the two districts as one reason to merge. Although the county gives both systems equal funding per pupil, the city school district raises additional money from a special tax.

But Cindy Smith, an assistant professor at the UNC School of Education, pointed to several studies showing that increased funding does not necessarily improve student achievement. She cited a 1990 study showing that schools in South Dakota had low pupil funding but high pupil achievement on standardized tests. The study showed, Smith said, that South Dakota has strong families, small schools and old-fashioned values.

“I am not sure what assumptions we can make about student achievement in a merged district,” she said.

Before the forum began, several groups handed out fact sheets advocating for and against merger. INFORM, the group sponsoring the forum, handed out information comparing the two school districts. Members — who came from both school districts — said they wanted the night to be about facts, not advocacy.

One group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, handed out stickers showing the word “merger” with a line through it. Lynda Haake, who has two children in the city schools, wore one of the stickers and said she attended the forum for more information.

“It’s just happening so quickly without a whole lot of information,” Haake said. “I kind of feel like we’re being railroaded.”

Joy Frelinger, a member of a committee that studied merger in 1986, told the crowd that her task force concluded that the county needed to equalize funding and the schools needed to collaborate on services. Frelinger said that she and several other committee members, however, thought the districts should not merge.

Also at the meeting, several schools and county staff members summarized a report that the county commissioners heard Sept. 15 about the implications of merging.

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